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PROJECT’S DEMISE HIGHLIGHTS LACK OF COHESION IN DOWNTOWN GREENSBORO

by Jeff Sykes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

City officials are now considering a streetscape plan for the 300 block of South Elm Street following the demise of a DGI-initiated project to create parklets in select locations downtown.

Parklets are designed to be temporary outdoor seating areas that turn a few parking spaces into usable outdoor seating for the public. They are intended to augment outdoor space near existing businesses in an economical way, providing a low-cost solution for the demand for increased public open space.

Parklets first sprang to life in San Francisco in 2010, with 38 such spaces in that city as of 2014. Raleigh has an emerging parklets program as well, one that Downtown Greensboro Inc. and City of Greensboro staffers relied on as the concept was discussed locally during recent months.

DGI approached numerous downtown businesses about the parklet’s concept, with two locations ultimately moving to the top of the list due to the interest of business owners and available space.

Scuppernong Books and Triad Stage were identified as good spots for parklets, with Scuppernong Books selected as the test site in late 2014.

The concept of parklets in Downtown Greensboro was controversial from the start, with naysayers complaining that they would attract unsavory crowds despite the fact that 86 percent of respondents to a parklet’s survey sent out by DGI in November 2014 were strongly in favor of the idea.

Downtown property owner Milton Kern called parklets “one of the dumbest ways to throw away money I have heard of lately.” In an email responding to the parklet’s survey on Nov. 3, Kern expressed concern about losing “coveted parking spaces” in exchange for seating areas open to the general public.

Since state ABC law would not allow for alcohol consumption in parklets, Kern expressed concern for the type of crowd parklets might attract.

“They will not be spending money but most likely will consist of males making ‘cat calls’ to the women who walk by,” Kern wrote. “Or maybe the different ‘gangs’ will take them for ‘their’ spaces. Do you not want these people ‘sitting’ in your establishment? Whoever is responsible for this stupid idea obviously does not own a building or a business downtown.”

Kern’s concerns were in the minority, however, as 86 percent of the 255 people who responded to the survey expressed support for the idea.

“Downtown is in need of more places for people to sit, relax and watch the day go by,” wrote one respondent. “Parklets are an excellent solution to this need.”

The overwhelmingly positive response to the survey gave DGI the momentum it needed to move forward with the idea.

“The response to Downtown Greensboro’s Parklet Survey was of overwhelming support for the idea of parklets,” DGI staffer Steven Harrison wrote in the survey’s executive summary. “DGI should feel encouraged to continue taking steps toward bringing parklets to Downtown Greensboro and giving our center city another idea for its cool physical environment.”

Cool is not always possible, however, and Greensboro’s parklet program became bogged down in countless bureaucratic hurdles involving insurance, accessibility, and the loss of parking revenue, in addition to discussions over who controlled the space.

A shooting downtown in early November focused much of the city’s attention on safety and a still stalled club security ordinance that would require clubs with a history of violent incidents to hire additional armed security guards.

The parklet conversation evolved between DGI’s Harrison, and city officials, including Assistant City Manager David Parrish and Chris Spencer, GDOT’s Engineering Division manager.

Spencer and Parrish helped Harrison develop a parklet’s program application and move closer to defining rules and regulations for the program. Spencer focused on maintaining traffic flow and infrastructure needs, while keeping accessibility for persons with disabilities at the front of the conversation.

Parrish helped Harrison focus regulatory language in the parklet application, and worked toward clarifying who could control the space.

DGI continued to discuss the parklet’s concept through the winter, with interim president Cyndy Hayworth entering the discussion after Jason Cannon’s abrupt resignation.

The drive toward parklets in downtown Greensboro became a crosstown collaboration when DGI began working with UNCG’s Department of Interior Architecture on student designs for potential sites.

Professor Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll said she approached DGI’s Harrison in 2014 about the idea of a collaboration. Harrison warned her at the time that it might not come to fruition, but Leimenstoll remained excited about a conceptual project for her students.

Students made design presentations in late February, and Scuppernong Books selected one student’s work for their preferred design. Bookstore owners preferred third-year student Alanea Kriets’s design for their pilot project, which thrilled Professor Leimenstoll.

This was in early March, and Leimenstoll said the students were excited about the interest.

“It seemed like folks were really looking at that as a strong possibility, but then about a week later (Harrison) contacted me and said it wasn’t going to happen,” Leimenstoll said. “I don’t really know what happened. It does seem like there was a burst of momentum and interest, but then for whatever reasons … I knew this was a test case.”

As discussion between DGI and city staff continued to ground to a halt, media reports began to surface that Greensboro city council member Zack Matheny intended to apply to become the next president of DGI. Matheny had been the council liaison to DGI since the fall of 2014.

Matheny wasn’t included in many of the discussions between DGI and city staff about the regulatory framework and potential designs that took place between September 2014 and early March, when a student design was selected to become a possible parklet outside of Scuppernong Books. Even as late as the March DGI board meeting, interim DGI President Hayworth included a parklet’s timeline in board materials that had a stated construction goal of April 1.

Matheny questioned Assistant City Manager Parrish about the project in late February. But it was a March 9 email recounting a conversation with the owner of a business across the street from Scuppernong Books that marked the beginning of the end of parklets in Greensboro.

Check out next week’s issue for Part 2 of this story. !

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